It's Difficult To Blame Miami Dolphins For Playing It Safe With Ja'Wuan James

By Cody Strahm
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins entered the 2014 NFL Draft with the No. 19 overall selection — realistically out of reach of the class’ top four tackle prospects, but high enough where taking a second-tier option at the position would come across as desperate.

So, what did rookie GM Dennis Hickey do with the pick? Tennessee right tackle Ja’Wuan James was added to the club’s revamped offensive line. The pick addressed the Dolphins’ biggest need. It likely assured quarterback Ryan Tannehill won’t be subjected to a revolving door of an offensive line yet again. And it was unquestionably a reach.

James, in all likelihood, would have been attainable later in the first round. Hickey admitted after the first round that the Dolphins had a “couple” offers to move back. Trading back would have at least garnered a third-round pick. And if another team swooped James up after Miami relocated, other starting-caliber options would have still been for the taking, like Virginia‘s Morgan Moses, who didn’t hear his name called during the first night.

When the 2014 draft is recalled years from now, fans will observe the players selected after James and undoubtedly identify household names who have a much greater impact on games than a reliable right tackle ever could.

It’s easy to point out why James is an underwhelming pick, but at the end of the day, Hickey, head coach Joe Philbin and anyone else who had any say in making James the pick, shouldn’t be blamed for the choice. It’s almost impossible to blame them — at least under these circumstances.

In any other year, on perhaps any other team, blame could be pinned on those responsible for a similar reach. Not in Miami. Not after what happened in 2013. A franchise record 58 sacks and a bullying controversy that brought national embarrassment to the organization headlined why last year’s offensive line was not only the worst unit in team history, but one of the worst fronts in the history of the NFL.

There’s no bigger reason why the Dolphins missed the playoffs. And the one person who was affected the most, just so happens to be the hands down most important person to the franchise. In an increasingly pass-happy league, the Dolphins will likely only go as far as their quarterback can take them. Although Ryan Tannehill showed steady improvement during his second year under center, he never had a real chance to take a huge leap.

So, the Dolphins have gone all-in this offseason to give Tannehill every opportunity to become the guy. They’ve utilized their resources — money in free agency and their highest pick in the draft — to assure nothing will hold him back from reaching his potential in 2014. No more mystery. No more excuses. Tannehill’s true colors should finally be brought to light.

Many will, of course, argue that the Dolphins could have still given Tannehill that opportunity by taking another right tackle later in the draft. Truthfully, they’re probably right. But the Dolphins simply weren’t going to risk it. James, without a doubt, was their top target. “We were always targeting Ja’Wuan at our pick,” Hickey told the Miami Herald.

Philbin explained the rationale behind the pick, saying “we felt like he has the ability to pass block one-on-one against defensive ends. That’s probably the first thing that really stuck out to us.”

The right tackle position isn’t valued as highly as the left tackle spot in a right-handed offense. But after Tannehill was sacked 12 times by rushers abusing his right tackle in 2013 — the second most sacks conceded at any position in the league — it’s certainly understandable why the Dolphins valued a prospect like James, who can provide consistent pass protection, so much.

More and more teams are allowing their most dangerous pass rusher to tee off against the right tackle, after all. The Buffalo Bills do so with Mario Williams, who the Dolphins face twice every season.

At the end of the day, the Dolphins deemed James, with 49 collegiate starts at right tackle, a qualified skill set in pass protection and the athleticism for the zone-blocking scheme, the safest bet to fill their biggest void.

Safe picks are often boring picks. But playing it safe likely solidified the offensive line. Playing it safe assures Tannehill will have every opportunity to break out next season. Playing it safe just made the Dolphins a better football team.

You can’t blame them for that.

Follow Cody Strahm on Twitter.

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